Cognitive Science · Human Rationality

What Human Reason is Really For.

This is a review of an article titled The Argumentative Theory by Hugo Mercier.  It appeared in on 4-27-2011.  You can read the original article here.   

Actually the ideas in this article connect with a lot of other books I’ve been reading lately, so this article is about much more than Hugo Mercier’s article. A bibliography of other texts I referenced for this article is at the bottom of this page.

The traditional definition of reason has always been something like “Reason is the thing that  humans use to search for the Truth” or “The thing that humans use to make good decisions with” or “How humans decide what to do next when faced with a new situation that requires thinking for yourself and using knowledge from past experience” or “The thing that makes humans special and which separates them from the rest of the animals.

Now two French cognitive scientists, Dan Sperber and Hugo Mercier have decided that this traditional definition of reason isn’t correct.  They have decided that human reason doesn’t search for truth, instead it helps justify what people have already decided is true based on their intuition.  They say that reason is more about rationalization than about an objective search for truth.  In short, they say that human reason is actually something that hinders, not helps in the search for truth.

Well, that sounds pretty nuts.  And simplistic.  And a bit adolescent.  But read on.  This position actually makes quite a bit on sense when you look at it in detail. And Sperber and Mercier aren’t really trashing reason, they are just saying it should be used differently than we have always thought. In addition, many well respected cognitive scientists like Steven Pinker are agreeing with them.  Or at the very least, they are thinking very seriously about Sperber and Mercer’s theory.  And when you look at this idea in the real worlds of science, education and political science, Sperber and Mercer’s theory, which is called the The Argumentative Theory, makes a great deal of sense.  We’ll get to these real world arguments in a minute.

It was actually Dan Sperber who came up with this idea over the last ten or fifteen years. Hugo Mecier is the junior partner of this team.  He was originally Sperber’s student and then his Post Doc student and now his full time partner.  Both are academics.  Sperber is a French social and cognitive scientist who teaches at Central European University at Budapest and works at The National Center for Scientific Research in Paris.  Hugo Mecier is a cognitive scientist who works for the French National Center for Scientific Research in Lyon.  Both have spent good amounts of time teaching and working in the US as well. You can read articles both by and about Sperber and Mercer on, which in my opinion has some of the very best articles and information on cutting edge science anywhere.

Sperber and Mercier have just come out with a new book in April of 2017 called The Enigma of Reason.  This new book is the occasion of quite a lot of recent interest in The Argumentative Theory.  It is also why I am writing this review of Mercier’s article The Argumentative Theory which is a quick-start introduction to The Enigma of Reason.

As I said, Sperber and Mercer are not really trashing reason.  They are just saying that we have always misunderstood what reason actually does and how it actually works. And, they say, if you realize this and if you use reason in the proper way it can still be an extremely valuable and powerful tool.  It’s only when reason is used in the wrong way that it becomes worthless at best and destructive at worst.

The wrong way to use reason they say, is in isolation.  Many famous thinkers have always thought that the lone genius working in isolation is the epitome of how reason should be used.  However in the last 30 or forty years this idea has come under attack from a lot of serious cognitive scientists.  The most famous of these is probably Daniel Kahneman.  Kahneman published  a book called Thinking Fast and Thinking Slow about five years ago, but he has  been working on this idea since the 1970s.  Several scientists and writers have rated this book as the best book in science since Darwin.  A more popular version of the book is The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds, by Michael Lewis.

Thinking Fast and Thinking Slow is pretty much what the title says it is.  According to Kahneman, there are two separate systems of human thought.  System one, which is fast and automatic and includes instincts, emotions, and innate skills shared with animals. System Two is slow and deliberative and allows thinkers to correct for the errors made by System One.

Kahneman says that most human thinking is fast, system one thinking.  Actually this is the only kind of thinking many people, probably the vast majority, ever do.  Fast thinking is mostly instinctive, intuitive thinking that is done subconsciously.  When you suddenly realize you have driven the last ten miles completely automatically and can’t remember anything you have done, you have been using number one thinking.  When you glance at a picture of a face and instantly know this person is angry or sad or happy, you are engaging in #1 thinking.  When you see a poster of two huge eyes watching you above the cup where you are supposed to pay for your coffee, your #1 thinking is being turned on to convinced to not cheat, and in this situation few do.  You instinctively feel like you are being watched.  When ideas about almost anything just pop into your mind and you are sure they are right (or wrong), without knowing exactly why, you are using Number one thinking.  And when you feel a strong compulsion to buy something on the internet, you very likely have been prepped to want the object by subconscious prompts inserted by advertisers who have studied Kahneman’s research.

On the other hand when you are paying careful, deliberate attention to the details of ideas and wondering exactly why you think they are right you are doing number two thinking.  If you are analyzing ideas or facts carefully and especially if you are paying careful attention to the rules of logic and statistics, you are engaged in number two thinking.  Unfortunately number two thinking is so time consuming and so much work, that very few of us ever use it.  Actually almost no one ever uses number two thinking on a regular basis.

Kahneman describes numerous cognitive biases that humans regularly fall into that are all part of number one thinking.  Perhaps the most common of these biases is Confirmation Bias.  Confirmation Bias happens when we  pay attention to only those arguments or stories or people which confirm what we already believe.  And the things we already believe are almost always concepts and beliefs and opinions that our  unconscious intuitions have conned us into believing.  Or, they are things that are very easily to believe.  Brains really do not like work.  And humans are always, always very lazy when it comes to thinking.  They will always believe whatever is the easiest thing to believe.   Number two thinking is very time consuming and it is a lot of work and as I said, almost no one ever does it.  So when we are looking at information we tend to look only at information that confirms what we already believe.  We almost never look at information that disagrees with our private sacred cows or even at ideas that are slightly different than our own and nothing that is even moderately difficult to prove or to figure out.

Number one thinking is really very insidious.  It is not just dumb or uneducated people who do this.  No matter how smart you are, or how well educated or how much you pride yourself on being rational, you still do it.  Guaranteed.  And we don’t even know we are doing it because we do it subconsciously.

Cognitive biases pull the wool over our eyes so successfully, that they are now a large part of how advertising works.  They have totally replaced the Hidden Persuaders of Vance Packard.  Everyone is now being constantly bombarded by hidden persuaders that are utilizing all of the hundreds of biases described by Kahneman.  I hate to say it, but these days Kahneman even teaches seminars in how to sell stuff by using hidden biases.  He recently gave a seminar to the likes of Jeff Bezos of Amazon, Sergey Brin of Google, Larry Page of Google, and Peter Diamondes.

Actually all this hidden persuaders stuff is getting pretty scary.  Tamsin Shaw just wrote a  great article on Kahneman and the use of cognitive biases as hidden persuaders in the April 20, 2017 issue of The New York Review of Books.  This article is pretty much a complete history of the idea of cognitive biases from Kahneman on.  The article is  called The Invisible Manipulators of Your Mind.  This is one of the best articles I have ever read on the subject.

Getting back to Dan Sperber and Hugo Mercier.  Dan Sperber originally began to think about human reason when Kahneman and other cognitive scientists begin to come up with all of the hundreds of biases that contaminate human thought.  Suddenly it began to look as if rationality wasn’t as great as we once thought it was.  Sperber wondered why, if rationality was such a wonderful window into reality, why it wasn’t more common in nature.  Why are not all animals endowed with rationality if it works so well.  Why does rationality turn up only in humans?  There are lots of wonderful inventions in nature like vision, and vision is shared by almost all animals.  It is found everywhere; it is as biologists say, well distributed.  Why, he wondered isn’t reason the same, why don’t we find reason everywhere.

And then Sperber began to ask himself what it was that reason actually does.  Does reason actually do what it was supposed to do, help us discover truth and that sort of thing?  Well, actually no.   According to Kahneman reason is a lousy tool for discovering truth.  Number one thinking is almost always wrong.  It almost always ends up by leading everyone astray.  And number  two thinking, even though it works really well, is not something that humans are naturally born with.  Only highly trained professional logicians are capable of always picking up on logical fallacies which are really quite tricky, and only a  very few people actually know how to use statistics in real world situations .  So why would a tool like this get evolutionarily selected for ?  Well, he thought, it obviously wouldn’t be selected because it really didn’t work that way..

So, Sperber thought,  why do we have reason?  Why has evolution endowed us with reason?  Maybe, he thought, truth seeking is not what reason really does.  Maybe, he thought, reason just makes us better arguers.  And humans are highly social animals who live in highly evolved cultures, and culture is really the thing that in the long run actually improves human cognition.  (See a book called Darwin’s Unfinished Symphony:How Culture Made the Human Mind.)  So, maybe having good arguers who were biased toward their own arguments was actually a good thing.  You don’t want arguers looking for good arguements to support the opposition’s ideas, you want arguers who support their own ideals really well.  So maybe confirmation bias turns out not to be a bad thing after all  but a good thing.  At least in evolutionary terms.

But, there is a catch to this.  Good argumentative skills full of confirmation bias are good things only as long as you do your thinking and arguing in public.  This is because all humans are blind to their own biases but very, very good at seeing other people’s biases.

I think this point is the most important thing that Sperber and Mercer are saying.  It is simply that thinking on our own always leads to serious errors and thinking in the company of other critical thinkers is often highly productive.

This is true because everyone is falling into the trap of  Confirmation Bias almost all the time.  And the really insidious part of this is that we never realize that this is happening because it happens subconsciously.  But, we can often see cognitive biases in other people’s thinking.  Humans turn out to be really, really bad at seeing their own biases but really, really good at seeing the biases of others.  And so, the place to use your reason is in the company of others who will ferret out your biases that are invisible to you and you can point out their biases that are invisible to them.

A great example of the need to think publicly, not privately, is how well peer review works in science.  Peer review mostly happens when scientists publish their articles in either Nature or Science, the two premier science journals,  and then their colleagues read and critique the articles.  Peer review is certainly one of the main reasons science works so well.  It is one of the most productive endeavors human beings can indulge in.

And there are other examples which are equally revealing.  Recently it has become well established in education that children learn much better in groups than they do sitting at home alone, thinking and writing papers in isolation.  There is a lot of evidence that kids learn difficult, complex ideas much better if you put them into small groups, give them boundaries and starting points and goals and then let them argue among themselves.  It turns out that this is a very efficient way of learning.  This has been one of the big new breakthroughs in recent education.

Another example of how well Argumentative Theory works  in the real world is Political Science.  As far back as the days of the American Founding Fathers it has been known that politics works much better in what are called deliberative democracies than in direct democracies.  In direct democracies citizens mostly vote directly  for candidates or for laws in voter referendums.  Actually, this process is often called populism.  And we see how well that is working in the very recent contemporary world.

One of the best books I have read recently is by Cass Sunstein.  This book is titled #Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media .  The basic idea of the book is that one of the reasons populism is so prevalent right now is that  social media is dividing people up into filter bubbles.  Social Media like Facebook and Twitter are set up to let you see only the news and views and information that you agree with. Here’s how this works: the users of social media are constantly liking and viewing and sharing and commenting on everything that they like as it pops up on their media. And it doesn’t take long for the built-in filters of all social media to create  a unique profile for every viewer, basically a list of their likes and dislikes.  This is what social media are designed to do.  (Social Media barons want to harvest your likes and dislikes and sell them for big bucks to the highest bidder.  This is the real purpose of social media.  See The Attention Merchants: the Epic Scramble To Get Inside Our Heads by Tim Wu )

So, the filters built into social media make it very easy for you to see things you like and very hard for you to see things you don’t like.  And of course, this is just what everyone wants, complete agreement on everything by everyone.  These social media users are constantly being told how wonderful and right they are and they are never bothered by those annoying critics who are always putting you down.   Some people have even been know to call this constant agreement love.

Media filters are actually no different from thinking alone; you don’t actually think alone, just with a bunch of other people who happen to think exactly like you think and never, ever criticize your ideas.  Reasoning in social media bubbles is the opposite of arguing in an open democratic society.

People who live in media bubbles end up in echo chambers that endlessly repeat what they like, endless repetitions and variations of their personal opinions.  They see no new ideas, especially ideas that may upset or worry or scare or stimulate them.  This is clearly not a healthy situation for democratic societies which only work when citizens constantly see a wide variety of topics and ideas.

Sunstein goes on to point out that the American Founding Fathers were well aware that Democracies only worked when people could air their views in public places.  And they also realized the solution for this problem, that when people meet strangers in parks and public streets and other public places they are exposed to all kinds of new, strange, and most importantly, unexpected ideas .  Only when people think and talk with other people with different ideas are everyones biases exposed.  This is why the Founding Fathers wanted the young United States to be a Republic.  A Republic is not a direct democracy, it is instead a deliberative approach to democracy.

Now-a-days citizens don’t usually exchange ideas and intellectually confront each other in the literal parks and public streets of the early US.   One place to find and discuss  opinions in the contemporary world is in  general interest newspapers and journals.  Here people are likely to see different opinions from their own and find all kinds of unexpected ideas.  Sunstein mentions publications like the New York Times or the New York Review of Books or even more popular news sources like Time, or Newsweek or even the nightly news.  The main point is that democracy would be greatly aided if more people exposed themselves to unexpected opinions, rather than just the opinions they agree with which are fed to them on a daily basis by their social media devices.

Sunstein says that it is essential for people in democracies to get out of their filter bubbles and expose their ideas to the critiques of their peers.  Only then, he says can democracies really work.  This is exactly what Republics are, he says. Republics are not direct democracies. Republics attempt to erect barriers to keep people from voting directly without ever thinking about their ideas. Elected representative who meet in congresses and parliaments where they can hash out issues are essential.  Anything that will get people into public areas where they can examine each others ideas is good.  Anything that will stand in the way of impetuous voting and make room for deliberative discussion which will expose biases is valuable.

Sunstein and Sperber and Mercer all make a point of calling this kind of a democracy deliberative democracy.  And this is exactly the kind of democracy Sperber and Mercer advocate in their Argumentative Theory.  They go into quite a lot of detail spelling out Sunstein’s ideas of how deliberative democracy works, why it is important and how cognitive science defines the issues involved.

In my opinion, Sperber and Mercer’s ideas about the proper and improper uses of reason  turn out to be quite important.  And they are part of a set of ideas that are beginning to be presented in many different  disciplines.  All of the books and articles below are pointing out these basic ideas in different ways.


The Enigma of Reason.  A book by Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber published in April of 2017.  Go to Book

The Argumentative Theory by Hugo Mercer.  An article in    Go to Article

The Function of Reason, Dan Sperber,  A long article on Dan’s long career in cognitive science and evolutionary psychology and his discovery of Argumentative Theory.   Go to Article

Thinking Fast and Thinking Slow by Daniel Kahneman.   Go to Book.

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media by Cass Sunstein.  Go to Book.

The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds, by Michael Lewis.  Go to Book. has many avenues for thinking about these ideas.

The Invisible Manipulators of Your Mind, by Tamsin Shaw.  An article in the NYRB.  Go to the article.

Darwin’s Unfinished Symphony: How Culture Made the Human Mind by Kevin N. Laland. Go to Book

The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads by Tim Wu.  Go to Book.

Mount Rainier, Washington

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